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Projected starters: Demario Davis, Darron Lee
Projected backups: Bruce Carter, Connor Harris
On the bubble: Spencer Paysinger, Julian Stanford, Frank Beltre
Departures: David Harris, Erin Henderson
Key stat: Lee had his highest grade of the season in the one game that David Harris missed, according to Pro Football Focus.
The release of the stalwart middle linebacker Harris signified a move into a new era. Harris missed one game last year, a blowout loss to the Cardinals, but had otherwise started every game since 2008, typically playing every snap.
In Harris' absence, it will be up to Lee, last year's first-round selection, to pick up the slack after an inconsistent rookie season.
The Jets have been preparing Lee for life without Harris for some time as they had him calling the defensive signals when Harris wasn't on the field down the stretch last season. The returning Davis should be of help in that regard. Last year in Cleveland, the Browns had youngster Christian Kirksey making all the calls and wearing the defensive headset, and Davis was apparently integral in preparing Kirksey for that role.
As for Davis himself, he's expected to take over from Harris as the mike linebacker. In his previous stint with the Jets, Davis was the will linebacker, although there were some elements of built-in interchangeability between him and Harris. Last year with the Browns, Davis lined up at the mike position at times more often, and has apparently bulked up since entering the league to enable him to handle such a role full time. Davis struggled in coverage in 2015, his one year playing for Todd Bowles, so the mike position might actually benefit him by exposing him to fewer man-to-man assignments.
Bowles has suggested that he doesn't view Lee as a candidate to be the mike, and that the likes of Carter and Stanford will compete with Davis for Harris' old role. Carter and Stanford are both solid special teams contributors, but have questionable instincts and were error-prone when called upon in relief last season. Stanford, in particular, looked out of his depth at times.
The Jets added to this group earlier this month when they signed Paysinger from the Giants. Paysinger has started 17 games in his career, including 10 in 2013, and racked up 223 tackles. At 28 years old and 249 pounds, he brings size and experience that this group may lack, but will still face a tough battle to make the team. Paysinger is another player who has been a good special teams contributor over the course of his career and also possesses some pass coverage abilities.
Beltre, a CFL import, is currently listed as an outside linebacker, but was reportedly getting reps with the second unit on the inside at mandatory mini-camp. It remains to be seen if that's where he's going to compete for a role on defense, but his best chance at a roster spot is probably on special teams, and that's somewhere he, too, has shown promise in the past.
Connor Harris, an undrafted rookie, is an interesting prospect. He's the all-time leading tackler in NCAA history and brings good intangibles and leadership to the position. Harris lacks length, which may restrict his ability to get off blocks, but he has outstanding instincts and will be one of the most fascinating players to watch in preseason.
Those backup spots are completely up for grabs, and Harris is the only one of the contenders who is not regarded as a special teams specialist. However, that's mainly by virtue of his defensive role being so important in college that he wasn't used there much. His instincts should be an asset in that role and his lack of length perhaps won't limit him as much when he's playing in space. If the team is forced to decide between a young player with potential and a veteran who can contribute immediately on special teams, it will be interesting to see where its priorities lie.
Outlook: There's no doubt the Jets will miss David Harris, but they had to prepare themselves to move on from him sooner or later. Had they managed to land Dont'a Hightower in free agency, the offseason would likely have gone in a different direction, but now the priority seems to be Lee's development. If anyone else from this group can step up and prove themselves worthy of a role on next year's team, then that would be useful. Otherwise, it's one position the Jets might find themselves needing to overhaul again in 2018.